How did it all start? With a wish, a worry, a dream, maybe a phrase of music? Yes, yes, yes, yes…
An interview I set up more than thirty years ago gets it in a nutshell. I say “set up” because I made the appointment, I told Frisner what the gist of it would be—his life in Haiti before coming to New York nearly ten years ago—and I brought a set of questions; but he really conducted the interview. After the first question, he took over, having spent the last few days reflecting on what he wanted the world to know about his struggle to become a drummer. I took the 3 subway to East 96th Street in East Flatbush on the evening of March 24, 1982, descended the tumbledown stairway to his basement digs, sat down with him, turned on the cassette tape recorder, and posed the first question. Hours later, I knew I was going home with a gem. But then, while I was away in Haiti during the summer of 1984, the cassette vanished!
I would dance to the outer reaches of the Universe to hear that recording again, in Frisner’s blossoming English—my Kreyòl was too embryonic for an interview. The little spirit of miracles, however, made sure I transcribed the exchange before its sonic incarnation fell through the black hole. Following the conventions I was learning in my ethnomusicology courses, I had thumped out the transcript on a little typewriter—no PC yet—nearly eighteen single-spaced pages in all. I three-hole punched the pages and filed them in a binder, where they lived for the next thirty years with more of my student work.
The notion of archiving the life and legacy of Frisner Augustin came to me within days of his passing in Haiti on February 28, 2012. When I arrived in New York, I realized with alarm that the typescript of that precious interview was all that existed. Rendering it in digital form became the first task of the Frisner Augustin Memorial Archive, and the digital incarnation now lives happily in various spaces.
The content of the interview, however, supersedes its preservation adventure story. I began this post, and the interview, asking, “How did it all start?” Frisner spent the next hours telling me how. Listen!
“Yeah, time I seven. And I say, I want to be big drummer, because I want to do same like I see my uncle do, because my uncle be travel. I think if I be travel maybe tomorrow, I’m going to help my family. I’m going to help my mother. ”
“But if you born with little parent, you got a lot of problem.”
“You know, my parent, I love them. All of them, I think all of them love me, too, but they don’t have enough money to put me the place I want to go. And I told God and my spirit I want to be a big man maybe one day. And by the dream, you know, time I dreaming, and I see one lady, the white lady, and one black lady. And [each] told me, ‘Frisner, I want you to be mine. And if you want to be mine, I’m going to help you with everything you want.'”
“But Ogou is my favorite spirit, because Ogou is happy to see me play the drum. And he tell me, ‘Frisner, I’m going to get you to play for me.’ And I tell the Ogou, ‘But you think I play good?’ And he say, ‘Yeah, and if you don’t play good, I’ll tell you to get out on the drum.’ And he say, ‘I don’t tell you nothing and you play good. And I’m going to help you, too.'”
Take a look at Frisner and members of Makandal at home in the same basement where we conducted the interview, about two months later. Not the most flattering pic, but think about its archival value. This is the way many artists had to live when migrating in from Haiti. From the left, Frisner Augustin, Carole Jean Louis, Smith Desroches, Yolande Leger, Smith Destin, and Bonnie Devlin. Photo by Lois Wilcken.
Frisner Augustin shared his philosophy and spirituality with generosity. He was keenly aware that his was a big story: the child musician who went to bed hungry on a dirt floor, meanwhile communing with his ancestral spirits and forging an exchange with them that would realize his dreams. When the online archive launches, you can read the whole story.
Please support the work of the Frisner Augustin Memorial Project, which includes the archive, an annual drum festival, and a recording series. Make a tax-deductible donation here. From Makandal, mèsi anpil!
Featured Image: Scan from the original typescript of Dr. Lois Wilcken’s interview with Master Drummer Frisner Augustin, Brooklyn, 24 March 1982